A Retired Michigan Prison Warden’s Reflections on Lifers, Death Row, and Heaven

Everyone I know who believes there is a heaven characterizes it as a place or state in which we no longer need worry about earthly things. As I understand it, Heaven is being with God in an eternity of total bliss and happiness because there is no need to be concerned with the necessities or vicissitudes of life; all basic needs are either provided for or are irrelevant. The realm of necessity no longer exists.

I have interviewed many prisoners with life without parole sentences, and fewer but still significant number of prisoners on death rows[1], and discovered many had an interesting take on their relationship to Heaven. All the convicts I interviewed had substantial time under their belts; they were not newly minted punks starting new bits, usually with major chips on their shoulders. And when I say “interviewed” I mean a series of long conversations that at least to a degree minimized the usually staff-convict mistrust.

With regard to the realm of necessity, I am struck by how they described Heaven to be much like prison. All a convict’s basic needs are provided for, if not of high quality, then at least to sustain life. The media portrayal of prison violence — -the bullying, strong-arming, and turf struggles — -though true, are overblown for most lifers (and all the condemned) living in low-danger prison environments, usually with other convicts in the same situation…convicts who “know how to do time.” The reality is there is little for the prisoner to do except be in bliss with God; it is what old cons mean when the tell new cons to ‘’do your own time.” It was what Quakers alluded to when the dubbed prisons “Penitentiaries” …places where prisoners did penance. Prisoners serving shorter sentences look forward to release and never come to understand the relationship between Heaven and prison. But lifers (without the possibility of parole) and the condemned do.

Old Lifers and death row condemned (like old people in nursing homes), come to know that life is worth living precisely because it ends. Slowly, over the course of their sentences, they realize having all your needs met makes life boring and renders it meaningless; having nothing to do slowly dissolves your identity. The Lifers I’ve known would trade Heaven for the struggles of earthly freedom in a heartbeat; for them, Heaven holds no promise.

Lifers lose their relationships with loved ones because they are unable to enter and meet commitments; they are unable to care for others. Caring for ourselves and others defines who we are: the jobs we hold, the projects we take on, the agreements we enter. Lifers run out of things to do and time ceases to exist. They are not yet dead, but enter a state of live eternity where their past disappears and their future is more of the same: An eternity of no needs, no decisions, no cares. They are not afraid of Hell because, as they figure it, they are already paying for their sins, their reality is Heaven as an extension of a Purgatory in which they already exist; in this regard they are ahead of the rest of us who must yet atone for our sins. Death becomes meaningless because there is nothing to care about. Old Lifers feel no urgencies since they have already lost everything.

An old Lifer does not ask himself what he ought to do with his time. It doesn’t matter. He is truly one of the living dead.

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[1] Michigan does not allow for capital punishment, so the condemned prisoners I spoke with were in other states, principally Illinois before that state abolished the death penalty.



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